At L’Arche Antigonish, several members of our community have benefitted from the production of a Life Story Book. These books have become keepsakes for these people and a trophy of sorts that invite themselves and others to reflect on and revisit the life they have lived. As part of my practicum for the Diploma in Intellectual Disability Studies with St. Francis Xavier University, I sat down one afternoon with Mary Eileen Garvie, and proposed the idea of creating a book about her life and she enthusiastically accepted the offer of partnership.

At first, I had this grand idea that I wrote in my initial proposal for the practicum. We would create a book full of Eileen’s stories, but also the stories her family members and friends had of her. It was going to be beautiful, but then reality set in. I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of content for this book, and really where to begin? How do you try to capture the essence that is someone’s life, or what it is that makes them… them?

Together, we decided to reach out to family members and friends to collect as many photographs as we could. After working together to identify the topics we would discuss, we sat down and sorted through these photographs, assigned them their placement in the book and determined the best way for Mary Eileen to own the creative process together. One of these ways was to show photographs to Mary Eileen and ask her questions while recording her reactions and responses. The stories she shared, inspired by and about the photographs, became the words to support the images in the book.

A Walk Down Garvie Road

During the creation of the book, Mary Eileen was very excited and often asked me ‘Are we really going to make a book?’ or ‘Is it really going to happen’? I knew she was going to be happy to have something she could share with others. We decided to go together for the first time to Garvie Road, part of the land on which Mary Eileen grew up.

Walking down Garvie Road together, for a tour of her homestead, I reflected in my journal, “I was most excited to see where all the history took place – so often Mary Eileen talks about things that happened in her life, but it was here that most of it happened. There was a lot of life lived on this land, and we got to take a look at it now from the other side of time and remember. I shared with Mary Eileen a bit about where and how I grew up too. It’s unique that many of her family are situated in one centralized location whereas I didn’t have that experience in the same way as a child. Here, Eileen’s family has settled and generations continue to enjoy the land her parents raised them on. Her family remained close throughout the years while mine had drifted apart. Eileen had reminded me how sad that was”.

There was something unique that I experienced at this moment about being invited into the place where Eileen had grown up and to hear all the stories she had to share. Here was a woman who had an intellectual disability yet had been so supported and loved unconditionally by those close to her.

John J. McGee writes: “A culture of life is immediately felt in warm and family-like interactions, shared meals, mutual activities, and love interactions… Mutuality emerges in the caregiving relationships based on the perception that we are a life-companion with the other. This is a phenomenon in which mutual love transcends all other questions.”  (Feeling at home, Chapter 3, 2010)

As I reflect on this experience, I am overwhelmed by the gift of it all and how lucky I am to know Mary Eileen and to have been invited onto this journey with her.

I am grateful for the learnings and teaching that Mary Eileen has provided me throughout this experience. Mary Eileen is someone who receives life from choosing to surround herself with others and was delighted to be able to share in the creation of this book with me as her partner. The feelings were mutual. Mary Eileen trusting me in helping her to share these stories about her life, but also the invitation to share with her a part of mine as well, was a tremendous gift.

– Kristofer Woods

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